MOSCOW - Exit polls cited by Russian state television showed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party with less than 50 per cent of the vote in Sunday's parliamentary elections, a significant drop reflecting Russians' growing weariness with his rule.
Opposition parties and election monitors said even this victory was inflated, alleging ballot-stuffing and other significant violations at the polls.
Although Putin and his United Russia party have dominated Russian politics for more than a decade, popular discontent appears to be growing with Putin's strongman style, pervasive official corruption and the gap between ordinary Russians and the country's floridly super-rich.
Putin wanted to see United Russia do well in the election as a sign of support for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away. He previously served as president from 2000 to 2008.
United Russia held a two-thirds majority in the outgoing State Duma, which allowed it to change the constitution unchallenged. Putin has warned that a parliament with a wide array of parties would lead to political instability.
The Communist Party appeared to be benefiting from the protest vote, with exit polls predicting it would get nearly 20 per cent of the vote.
The exit poll conducted by the VTsiOM polling agency had United Russia tallying 48.5 per cent, and another done by the FOM polling agency had it winning 46 per cent of the vote. The two separate polls were reported by Channel One and Rossiya television.
Only seven parties were allowed to field candidates for parliament this year, while the most vocal opposition groups have been denied registration and barred from campaigning.
Several parties complained Sunday of extensive election violations aimed at boosting United Russia's vote count, including party observers being hindered in their work.
Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov said his party monitors thwarted an attempt to stuff a ballot box at a Moscow polling station where they found 300 ballots already in the box before the start of the vote.
He said incidents of ballot-stuffing were reported at several other stations in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don and other areas. In the southern city of Krasnodar, unidentified people posing as Communist monitors had shown up at polling stations and the real observers from the party weren't allowed in, Zyuganov said.